The Group of Eight (Go8), which represents Australia’s elite universities, has called for university places to be recapped, saying that the demand-driven system has failed to sufficiently boost numbers of disadvantaged students entering higher education – one of its primary goals – and therefore the additional cost to the taxpayer is unjustified.
In its paper, the Go8 said:
Against the target of 20% of university enrolments to be students from a low SES background by 2020 the demand-driven system has delivered just a 1.5% increase, while the majority of the growth has come from medium and high SES students.
The word “just” implies the policy has been a failure, but such rhetoric is misleading.
In real terms this represents more than 35,000 extra students from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds between 2009 and 2014, the period analysed by the Go8 in its paper.
This figure does not include other groups of disadvantaged students that have also benefited from the uncapping of places. These include Indigenous students, those living in regional and remote areas, and students with disabilities.
There are too many variables to know whether or not the 20% target by 2020 will be achieved. But even if, in the incredibly unlikely event that no more gains were made from now on, the policy would still have resulted in access for tens of thousands of disadvantaged students.
A small but significant gain
While on the face of it the 1.5% change might seem minimal, in real terms this is genuinely significant.
Using the same time period, enrolment population and low-SES measurement as the Go8 did for its paper, we find that between 2009 and 2014, an additional 36,720 low-SES undergraduate students were enrolled.
32,875 enrolled in non-Go8 universities, which is a proportional improvement of 7% over the period. That is, the relative change from an 18.4% share of enrolments to a 19.7% share was 7%.
In the eight elite universities an extra 3,845 low-SES students enrolled, which is an even better improvement of 11.7% over the period.
The Go8 is therefore calling for the scrapping of a system that has, it could be said, had more success in its own institutions than others.
Department of Education and Training/Author provided, CC BY-ND
A major reason for the better-than-average improvement for the elite universities is that they have always been harder for low-SES students to get into compared to other institutions. Therefore, even small gains in this regard represent significant organisational cultural changes by the elite universities. These are changes that almost certainly would not have occurred without the policy being introduced.
For disadvantaged students, getting access to a university is important; getting access to an elite university perhaps more so.
Consider also that overall enrolments rose by 157,717, meaning the low-SES students share of these was 23.28%. That is almost parity with their representation in the wider community, which is by definition 25%. This is unprecedented: historically the low-SES share of enrolments has been in the low teens.
If different figures or measurements or time scales are used, then the specific figures will change.
However, the overall message does not change: now that places are uncapped, disadvantaged students are finding more opportunities to attend university, including those elite universities.
If supply was again restricted, as the Go8 is arguing for, these gains will almost certainly be lost.
So is a gain of around 35,000 disadvantaged students, out of around 150,000 overall, a success or failure?
If these numbers are judged in isolation, as the Go8 has done, then they may seem unremarkable. But when they are compared with those that came before them, the benefits of uncapping places for disadvantaged students becomes much clearer.
Look at it this way: the extra number of low-SES students who have accessed higher education thanks to uncapping places, is only slightly smaller than the total number of low-SES students in our universities a decade ago (39,781 in 2006).
Challenge of boosting numbers of disadvantaged students
The policy of uncapping places has not yet achieved its full objectives. Social disadvantage is highly entrenched in our systems and institutions and can take years, if not decades, to overcome this.
Expectations and aspirations of the students and their parents have to be supported over the long term, as does the academic preparation children receive from the earliest years of education.
Universities have to first encourage and then adapt to changing student demographics, including modifying their admissions and support systems.
All this takes time. But it is clear that uncapping places is helping.